Nicaragua is the Exception: Letter to a Cynic

“That’s unbelievable,” my father-in-law wrote me from Ireland after watching me give a statistic-heavy webinar on the advances for the poor in Nicaragua since 2007.

“I know, right?” I replied.

“No, I mean it’s actually unbelievable,” he wrote back. “For cynical people like me, our faith in humanity has been undermined. The story of a government really looking after ordinary people is too good to be true.”

I understand what he means. If I hadn’t been living in Nicaragua for the last 20 years and hadn’t seen with my own eyes the changes since the Sandinista government came back in to power with a pro poor strategy 14 years ago, I know that I would also dismiss the statistics as nothing but propaganda.

But I have seen these changes, so how can I reach those who are too cynical to believe in a government working for the good of its people?

My father-in-law has been to our home in a rural village outside Managua many times over the past 20 years, but it’s been awhile since he visited. His favorite pastime in Nicaragua has been sitting on our porch, chatting with our neighbors and taking part in village life. Perhaps if he understood how the statistics translate into real changes for these villagers he cares for, then he might allow himself to believe that it’s not just propaganda. So here is a letter to him:

Potable Water: Access to potable water in Nicaragua has risen from 65% of urban homes in 2007 to 92%. Access to water in rural areas has risen from 28% to 55% and 3,127 community water committees have been established.

Do you remember the afternoon you spent walking down to the village well with our neighbor Oscar, waiting in line with all the village boys to fill three barrels of water for our household, then riding on the ox cart back up the hill? It was a unique thrill for you, but it was an ordinary afternoon for Oscar. At that time, our whole village rationed water for washing, bathing and drinking. Our neighbors only had chickens and a few cows because they had to carry all the water for livestock. No one had much of a garden, it was too expensive – we and our neighbors often paid $55 per month for water.

Now, a new well provides water for two villages – 575 households – and we have clean drinking water coming out of the tap in our homes. The water project is run by a community water committee which has installed meters and collects monthly charges – usually less than $10. Our neighbors have more livestock and most grow seasonal kitchen gardens – getting starts and seeds for free from a government program – in addition to their fields of beans and corn. The boys of the village – the ones who used to spend all afternoon down at the well – can now do their homework instead…much to their chagrin!

Electrical Coverage: Electrical coverage has risen from 54% in 2007 to 99% in 2021. In 2007, Nicaragua’s electricity was sourced at only 26% renewable. Today, with huge investment in wind, biomass, geothermal, solar, and hydroelectric, more than 80% of Nicaragua’s electricity is produced using renewable resources. Since 2007 more than 38 million barrels of oil have been saved, thanks to this switch.

Do you remember when you first came to visit us and you tried to show us a video, but every time the refrigerator motor kicked in, the computer turned off? Like all our neighbors, we were bringing our electricity from the well, and even though we had purchased proper wire, at a distance of 900 meters, the electricity wasn’t stable. You probably remember visiting Mario’s house, which was barely lit by one bulb at night by electricity conducted through pieced-together barbed wire.

Well, now every house in the village is connected to the grid. Each family pays their monthly electric bill, although those with low consumption – 80% of the population – receive a subsidy to cover 45% of their bill. Now Mario doesn’t just have one light bulb, he and his wife Sara have one of the largest shops in the village, with two refrigerators for selling perishable food and drink.

Education: In 2003, the average Nicaraguan had 3½ years of schooling and only 30% of those starting 1st grade were expected to finish 6th grade. Now the government feeds 1.2 million school children a hot meal daily, and every public primary school student receives a backpack with school supplies at the beginning of the year. Today, youth with no schooling at all has dropped from 24% to 4%. Rates for passing primary and secondary grades have increased from 79% to 91% and remarkably, the percentage of the population with a university degree has risen from 9% to 19%.

Do you remember when our daughters started preschool at the village primary school when they were three? Remember how their teacher earned less than $20 per month? Remember how they started the meal program, and all the children would line up with their bowls and spoons to be served beans and rice at recess? Remember when our younger daughter started first grade and you were so shocked to see a 13 year old in her class who had never learned to read and write?

Do you remember Armando and Junior who used to juggle on our porch? When their older cousins finished sixth grade, there wasn’t a secondary school in the village they had to travel out to the highway. It wasn’t far, but families couldn’t afford the transport costs, and so many kids never even made it to 7thgrade. Well, by the time Armando and Junior finished sixth grade, the government had started a program using rural primary school facilities for secondary classes. Kids from surrounding villages now come to our school here high school every Saturday. Armando was able to help his grandpa with their cattle during the week, Junior got a job in Managua, and on Saturdays they attended school. Both Armando and Junior graduated last year. They didn’t go on to university, but they are both now studying at a technical school – culinary arts and hotel management. Their classmates are in auto mechanics courses, veterinary school and at the university, all for free. Our village now has agronomists, doctors, nurses, accountants, pharmacists, and engineers.

Health Care: Since 2007 there are 212% more maternal wait homes and 88% fewer home births, maternal mortality rates lowered by 70% and infant mortality rates lowered by 61%. There has been a 46% reduction chronic malnutrition in children under 5 and a 66% reduction chronic malnutrition in children 6 to 12 years old.

Remember when our girls were born at home? We were lucky enough to pay a doctor to be there with us. Many of our neighbors had given birth at home too – with no doctor. I remember talking with a co-worker who told me how she birthed all but one of her thirteen kids at home by herself! When I was pregnant with Orla, our neighbor Nelson stopped me on my way to work and asked, “Are you in a hurry?” It turned out his wife was in labor and needed a ride to the hospital, I was worried because she was silent during the 30 minute trip – she gave birth just 10 minutes after I dropped them off! Now, our pregnant neighbors don’t have to worry about traveling in labor, they can go in to the maternal wait home for the last two weeks of their pregnancies where they are monitored by doctors. Their moms or sisters can be with them during labor, and they give can give birth closer to home.

Do you remember on your first trip to Nicaragua 20 years ago when we drove into the barrio of Hurricane Mitch refugees and you remarked at how cute the blond kids were with their fat bellies and I had to tell you that straw-like hair and pot bellies are symptoms of severe malnutrition? You were heartbroken.

I am relieved to say that things have changed – since 2007 the government has made health care free, built 21 new hospitals and 1,500 health clinics around the country, hired more medical professionals and has even converted semi trucks that have been confiscated in drug busts into mobile clinics that do 1.9 million patient consults per year. Thanks to this increased care and the school lunch program, it’s now rare to see kids suffering from malnutrition.

Infrastructure: Nicaragua now boasts the best roads in the region. Since 2007, the country has doubled the mileage of paved roads, paving new nearly 2,000 km, repairing another 2,000 km, building 120 km new bridges and drainage systems.

Do you remember when we first moved to the village and you would call us on your land line once a month and we always had a new story about getting stuck in the mud and pulling the truck out with three teams of oxen, or the road washing away and having to walk in and out, or the tires going flat constantly from debris carried into the road? How long has it been since we had a new story like that for you?

Even following two Category 4 hurricanes in two weeks last year, the roads were fixed in a matter of days. Now we have bridges over every arroyo between our house and town, many of the roads are paved, and the dirt roads are maintained regularly. Even when it’s raining hard, we can get to work and back home safely, our neighbors get their crops to town, and the buses and motorcycle taxis run their full routes year round.

Agriculture: Since 2007, credits totaling $548 million have been given to small farmers, attending 25,700 farmers per year. Since 2007, 318,000 members have been inducted into 5,900 new cooperatives. Nicaragua now produces 90% of its own food.

Do you remember our neighbor Wilmer who used to wave to you as he’d drive his horse cart loaded with tree trunks? At that time, he was feeding his family by chopping down trees and selling them for firewood. Well, I recently saw Wilmer at the mayor’s office. Like us, he was picking up a donation of hardwood seedlings from the Forestry Institute. He’s not only reforesting his own land, but he’s also learned aquaculture and has a fish tank for tilapia, and he takes a load of organic vegetables to market once a week. He and some other neighbors helped us to get black sesame seeds for a test plot. The farmer co-op we work with has 220 acres of organic sesame planted in the village this year, and now another 15 acres of black sesame. For the third year in a row, they’ll give seasonal work to 80 of our neighbors – mostly women – during the harvest.

Creative Economy: Since 2007, more than 23,345 micro and small businesses have been formalized, meaning those workers are now part of the social security system. 3.5 million women have taken free courses to strengthen work skills. The government has sponsored 32,552 fairs and built 144 municipal markets. Additionally, 800,000 women have received loans at 5% annual interest; an average of $18 million dollars is loaned per year.

Do you remember Paula? When you last saw her she was a single mom cleaning and cooking to support her son. Paula now works an office job and runs two small businesses on the side. Both businesses are legally registered, and her two employees are registered with social security, receiving benefits and paying toward their retirement pensions. Together with a dozen other women, Paula just finished a free two month-long course on design and product development and is exhibiting her merchandise at fairs. Her employees attend regular free seminars on customer service, leadership, and hygiene.

Gender Equality: Since 2006, overall gender equality Nicaragua has gone from 62 out of 153 countries to number five worldwide. Nicaragua is number one in the world for women’s health and survival, for women’s educational attainment and for women cabinet ministers. 

One of the things that has always impressed you about Nicaragua is its people. In particular, Nicaraguan women who come across even to foreigners like you as strong, independent, and uncompromising. So it should not surprise you that Nicaragua is one of the most gender equal countries in the world, and that in the past 14 years, it has closed the gender gap by 80%. Nicaraguan women like the ones you know from our village finally have the legal framework and opportunities to guarantee them the equality they have always insisted on.

So, are you still feeling cynical? I know it’s hard to believe that any country has so intentionally and diligently worked to improve the lot of ordinary people, but I want you to know that we are witnesses to the exception to the rule that is Nicaragua.

All photos by Becca Mohally Renk.

NOTE: Names and identifying details of the people mentioned have been changed.

SOURCES: PLAN NACIONAL DE LUCHA CONTRA LA POBREZA 2022-2026, Gobierno de Nicaragua Junio 2021; World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2020; United Nations Development Program 2003.


Becca Renk has lived and worked in sustainable community development in Nicaragua since 2001 with the Jubilee House Community and its project, the Center for Development in Central America. The JHC-CDCA also works to educate visitors to Nicaragua, including through their hospitality and solidarity cultural center at Casa Benjamin Linder.